[covers by Martin Simmonds (l) and Leinil Francis Yu (r)]
Finally! We’re back to two ensemble X titles in one week! Woo! It’ll be more than a month before that happens again—and then we’ll be going big: A veritable title wave of comics! (Not sorry for the pun! And shout out to the used bookstore of the same name I worked at 20 years ago in Anchorage.) Let’s hope we survive the experience; 2022 should prove quite different from the scheduling chaos of the last two years, supply chains permitting.
Regardless, as to the books at hand, they each bring different strengths, but certainly, it’s increasingly clear that Vita Ayala is entering their early peak as a storyteller with each issue of New Mutants, so we’ll start by covering issue #24, which couldn’t be more perfectly balanced as a kind of intermission between arcs (with “The Labors of Magik” likely to be as decompressed as the Shadow King arc but even more epoch-making judging by this issue’s last panel).
There’s obviously a lot going on throughout the issue, and there’s much less to say about Secret X-Men, so we’ll save that fun and gorgeous but insubstantial one-shot for last. But let’s acknowledge upfront that, whatever form it takes, Beto and Sam do need regular Krakoan backup out there in Shi’ar Imperial space. Besides Sam and Smasher’s levitatin’ tot, they’re the only mutants! (Granted, Xandra’s status as a mutant is somewhat ambiguous, and that ambiguity is enough for most humans to decide she’s no part of their tribe. But of course not! Culturally and politically, she’s Shi’ar first and foremost; her dual genetic heritage appears not to signify—though who knows. It will be fascinating to see how far she goes for Krakoa’s sake and the complexity of her motivations there. However, such potential character development feels far off, but maybe Al Ewing will be the one to pick this up.)
So, let’s start with the reset chapter this week—a major reboot for characters all too often overshadowed by bigger titles and events.
I. What Is Given – What Is Deserved
Undoubtedly, Vita on this title is vital to the heart and soul of the ongoing Krakoa project. More than that, it’s a series that would’ve been an absolute miracle to me 30 years ago, at the peak of my comic-reading days as a lonely neurodivergent kid lost in the moral murk of a violently intolerant and bigoted Houston suburb. But it’s awesome that this YA-oriented series exists now, in a time that’s still pretty darn rough for the kids. No doubt, it’s on me that as an open but jaded 40-year-old I find the messaging here too on the nose. So I’ll just get on with appreciating the deceptive ease with which the creative team here achieves a cohesive whole through strong thematic unity, seamlessly threading together this title’s ever-expanding ensemble cast.
First off, it’s just really cool to see Magik and Rictor hanging out at the Green Lagoon and talking magic, and I really like that Illyana’s “I’m a self-taught infernal sorcerer” subtly allows her past self fuller autonomy and self-respect than has often been allowed her (by careless or even dodgy male writers, to say nothing of Belasco*). Such subtler moments amongst what some have derisively called “therapy” talk further reveal what is deserved, in reference to the aptness of this issue’s title. (Also, she’s not as dumb as many believe, being well aware that “words have multiple connotations”—which indeed marks her as a cut above most college students I’ve had the joy of teaching. 😉)
*But see the double-spread montage later in the issue, where she directly reiterates this: What she learned of magic ultimately surpassed whatever Belasco imposed upon her; if she weren’t self-taught in this regard, Illyana never would have fought free. And in mastering her purgatory, she purged its erstwhile ruler—while there’s no claim here that foundational traumas can simply be eradicated.
And what Magik has to say not only frames this issue, her thoughts here richly presage the upcoming arc. Some readers have taken this talk of “we’re supposed to” more this or that than humas as sure signs of damning mutant supremacy from the X office, forcing our apparently no longer oppressed fantasy minority to puppet what amounts to hate speech. This is bad faith nonsense (as Steve Orlando’s Brimstone Love already demonstrated!)—and Vita is very clear here:
The perspective here is of a people who have of necessity fallen back on a solidarity utterly lost on a society such as ours, engineered out of a brutalist hierarchy of ruthless capitalistic divisions, the towering ladder dividing the haves and have nots in seemingly endless gradations that have instilled us with horrific* apathy toward those on the next rung down and lower. *It’s all the more horrifying in that we don’t see it that way; this has already been our undoing (meaning what comes after is already in the making).
Regardless, though, it’s clear that Magik is saying Krakoans should be capable of greater connection, but that’s not yet the reality. There’s much work to be done. This dialogue with Rictor isn’t self-congratulatory—it’s a call to (interpersonal) action.
We’re also definitely meant to take seriously her talk of the greater connectivity achievable through Krakoan power circuits, which is impossible to me to read as anything like mutant chauvinism. After all, why wouldn’t fans want to see this kind of collectively shared power up? In any case, we already know that this year will be a hard one for Krakoa, so I predict Magik will be one of the leading lights to see us through to a brighter day after a darkening tomorrow.
Still, beyond the metaphor, it’s not obvious how the majority of mutants would fit into a circuit. Granted, much ingenuity went into Hickman’s creation of the Five and Ewing’s follow-up with the Six in S.W.O.R.D., and Vita has shown some sketches of battlefield possibilities in New Mutants training skirmishes. This last, though, showed how difficult it could be for creators to easily intuit circuits for quite familiar characters like, say, Colossus, Wolverine, Blob, Toad, even Cyclops, and so on. And with the majority of those listed here not being particularly empathic, should they be considered lesser, even pitied, for not being prime material for making magic and nirvanic intercommunication? However it all plays out, though, I’m here for it!
Now, obviously, there’s another problem inherent to the marketplace is: If mutant society is so leveled and communal, why don’t we get to see the familiar mutants we’re comfortable with meeting and hanging out with new folks much more regularly? The clearest answer is that then readers would be wondering about all these debuts, wanting to know more about them, and then our beloved writers and artists would be quickly overwhelmed with delivering much more than they already do every month. (But hey, there’s always fanfic!)
A. “Welcome back, little sister”
That’s how Storm welcomed Rahne back to life in the opening flashback of Hickman’s New Mutants #1. There, we saw her seated on a rock in a clearing in the happy quiet of a Krakoan forest.
[New Mutants #1 art by Rod Reis]
When Vita came on board and broke down Rahne’s inner disquiet, this earlier scene was more notable for what it, and Rahne herself, was holding back. Rahne had been through a lot of trauma, to put it mildly, and her apparent happiness in New Mutants #1 was well deserved; it was indicative of the promise of Krakoa. Looking back to that issue, you’ll see Karma joining her there, offering to talk, but her younger agemate appears content to enjoy the start of her new lease on life, soaking up the lush Krakoan environment.
Of course, I didn’t say “friend” because these two have never been that close. Of the OG New Mutants, they probably have the most traumatic backgrounds—not to discount the terrible things that happened to each of them before Xavier/Moira’s timely recruitment—but they came on board dealing with these matters in very different ways. Then, of course, Karma disappeared for a long time (thanks to the Shadow King). So, it was a surprise that it wasn’t the person Rahne had always (or once) been closest to, Dani Moonstar, who first came to her upon her return to life—which felt like maybe a deliberate choice on Hickman’s part. (Whatever the case, Hickman on this title didn’t indicate a clear plan for anyone not named Beto or Sam, which I’m sure he’d make no bones about!)
Dani coming to her now, in issue #24, on what is clearly meant to be the same rock, is a clear statement (though perhaps the subtlest visual cue this issue): Rahne’s best friend has returned, to stay by her side. And she acknowledges her own failing toward Rahne, in not seeking her out—and by implication instead allowing the Shadow King to reach her. (Back in the day, this is also how he got to Karma, as the relative outsider among the OG New Mutants; by the same token, Karma’s Shadow King experience has now brought her closer to Rahne, despite the tension and drama between them, as seen in Vita’s previous arc. The fact that Xi’an even felt so raw about Rahne’s willingness to be taken in by Amahl Farouk is a kind of intimacy that the two had never before shared.)
Recall that Rahne broke down over Tier in issue #15, who certainly seemed dead at the hands of a demonic Strong Guy back in 2013’s X-Factor #256 by Peter David. (In issue #118, after a violent death, Guido was mysteriously resurrected, by Layla Miller it turned out—even though she couldn’t restore a person’s soul. While she promised to rectify this, he lost his ability to care for others and, long story short, ended up working for Mephisto in some infernal turf wars and ultimately achieved his status as Mephisto’s usurper, Supreme Hell Lord, by taking Tier’s life, thus allowing him to resurrect the recently dead Monet, for whom he did still have feelings.)
But Cerebro indicated that he was still alive. Of course, all the Shadow King business kept Dani from moving forward on this investigation while her primal (but platonic) soulmate* Rahne fell under the way of the Shadow King.
*Dani reaffirms this here, but while it was an essential feature of their early depictions in New Mutants volume 1, this basic fact has, since the ’90s, really been all but forgotten.
This is a major reset for this pair.
B. “What if I’m supposed to be like this?”
This is the question Cosmar has been asking of herself since her X gene activation (back in issue #9), but it’s also something we should be asking ourselves of some long-standing character depictions, like with Martha Johansson (at last, No-Girl no more!) and John “Thunderbird” Proudstar—and yes, Rahne, as well. Even Illyana! Again, this issue is quite the reset. And the upcoming arc promises to be a big one for Madelyne “The Goblin Queen” Pryor.
Returning to Martha and Cosmar, though, it’s essential to first off remember that the appearance of neither is a direct result of their mutation. Granted, issue #11 revealed that before her debut, Cosmar’s disfiguration was due to an all-but-inevitable loss of control upon the sudden activation of her reality-warping X gene. So, it’s as if her self-shame has kept her locked in the trauma of that moment, as unwilling as unable to forgive and thereby heal herself. After all, such as it happened, her mutant awakening did also kill her parents. That, tragically, is what was given.
Now Natashia is given a chance at what she deserves. As Masque* says, “Let’s see if we can’t help you see what we see.” Like so many comic heroes for far too long, she has suffered enough from an original trauma that’s kept her trapped in the past; she shouldn’t end up like so many before her, suffering only an illusion of change. Subtly, Vita is making a critical comment on the history of the medium, but like other creators of their generation (G. Willow Wilson being an early example), they’re moving forward with a different brand of heroism—long overdue at this point!
* As confirmed in Marauders #18, Masque is now working in focused Hippocratic fashion to perform positive cosmetic wonders for the first time in his life, after spending decades as a body-horror terrorist, most often against his fellow mutants! Also, note that Mutietown’s Moira MacTaggart Hospital still retains its name, which will likely continue to be the case. After all, outside the QC^ and Doug’s small inner circle, no one even knows of Moira’s secret existence. Banshee and Proteus would be super-confused and put out if Emma decided to rename it now. (^Oh yeah, guess that includes Mikhail too!)
In New Mutants #15 Dani refused Cosmar’s request to ritually kill her in the Crucible so that she could return with her former appearance. Now, at least, there’s a much healthier option. Thank you, Vita! (Again, they’ve shown themselves to be, creatively, the heart and soul of this era, and I think that there was, overall, too much grim in Hickman’s vision for a long haul Krakoa project that would last for years. The “poison” of Mr. Percy, while a sheer delight, is just the right amount for a steady ride.)
Turning to Martha, now Cerebella, Martha has returned with the self she projected inside the mindscape of the Shadow King last issue. This is, indeed, her ideal self—which, rather distractingly, is highly reminiscent of Cylobel from Moira’s Ninth Life back in Powers of X. Her new name is amusingly punny: Cerebella is plural for cerebellum, but the bella part is there to tell us, something like, her actual brain is beautiful. And hey, we’ve been seeing that organ for a long time at this point, so maybe she doesn’t want to hide it away? As a nearly top-tier telepath, it is her strongest muscle.
When Storm says Martha was once “a victim of humanity’s worst cruelty,” she speaks truly. John Sublime was, however, technically a sentient bacterium merely possessing human hosts to pursue its schemes, but unable to possess mutants, it had no trouble working up violent anti-mutant hatred in humans, allowing it to pursue desired mutant targets for weaponization. This was Martha’s cruel fate. All of this, except for Sublime’s true nature, can be found in the Grant Morrison classic New X-Men #118.
(It’s odd, though, that Daken and Laura are only now reuniting with Scout, but considering her resurrection occurred, in-universe, on the heels of the Gala and that everything up through last issue quickly followed, maybe we can put this chapter as happening before Inferno—and almost immediately after Trial? Perhaps however you headcanon it—and the “need” to do so—comes down to personal preference!
(Really, though, where the heck is Ernst?! We haven’t seen her since 2018’s Old Man Logan #40, weirdly, where she was still hanging with her best friend Martha Johansson. Well, I can only assume Mr. Orlando has plans for her—since he’s clearly a big fan of Grant Morrison and Cassandra Nova…)
Most stunning for readers familiar with the Bronze Age X-Men is John Proudstar’s characterization here. After just four appearances (forget all the subsequent afterlife or undead versions and the retcon inserts) over 45 years ago, there’s no reasonable argument for his persona being set in stone, but because he did make such a big visceral impact on readers in the OG Giant-Size X-Men and Claremont’s first few issues, Thunderbird as the bullish and perpetually angry and resentful Native American youth really stuck with us forever after—until now. And it is such a relief, after his beatific return at the end of The Trial of Magneto, to see him interact on panel, for real, with his brother James.
Remember that James debuted with the codename Thunderbird back in 1984’s New Mutants #14, alongside the White Queen’s other Hellions, at her Massachusetts Academy, a rival to Xavier’s (taking in no less famous a mutant than Firestar a couple years later). His intention, then, was to avenge his brother against Xavier and the X-Men; initially characterized as an only slightly more self-controlled angry youth, he’s obviously grown into a much more rounded characterization, first relaxing into being nicknamed “Jimmy” and taking the new field name, Warpath, in X-Force (granted, Liefeld had to leave the book first before other writers could develop him further).
However much Xavier managed to convince James (in Uncanny #193) that his brother had died a hero, there must certainly have been some anxiety on his part about meeting his resurrected brother. All this is packed into the short scene in New Mutants #24. At the time, though, it was definitely rather a white lie to say Thunderbird got himself killed heroically. Maybe Claremont wanted to rewrite that moment, as well, but his needless self-destruction is an indelible memory to those who’ve read those early issues.
Again, though, there’s no reason not to somewhat recast his characterization now. We never did see him then with his brother, and it’s only for the best that he’s now much more than a painfully racist caricature. That said, with the upcoming Giant-Size X-Men: Thunderbird one-shot co-written by Steve Orlando and wrestling star and actress Nyla Rose, who is of Native and African-American descent, with art by rising star David Cutler, a First Nation Canadian, I’m betting we’ll see that John Proudstar has not lost his edge for all that he’s undoubtedly bound to be characterized in a more respectful, not to mention realistic, manner.
And then, Amahl Farouk gets his turn—a chance at finding what he deserves, if not forgiveness from everyone he’s damaged. Stunning as well here is the genuinely stricken and contrite portrait of the man rather than the inner child. No longer will Farouk’s face evoke terror? We shall see, in Si Spurrier’s Legion of X, which is where he’s off to, exiting through the only (Arakki) gate to Legion’s House of L, or its Altar, an astral pocket venue Legion created for The Onslaught Revelation denouement.
Also! Karma finally gets to be gay, outside Vita’s story in the Marvel Voice’s: Pride anthology issue, which also saw the debut of her girlfriend Galura. Still, it was weird she wasn’t named on page here. (Never mind the lack of translation for her (Filipino) Tagalog—“Are you okay?”) And the way their kiss was portrayed felt rather little timid, not getting more prominent page space. In the digital version, all the montage panels appear quite small; it’s not very effective when you have to zoom in to see what’s happening and with whom. So this definitely had a “bury your gays” vibe to it, unintended or not.☹ With Marvel’s sorry track record, the cynic in me believes Vita is being held back by the schmucks in corporate.
C. “Go see a girl about a sword”
Magik meets magic, all in glossy black. Honestly, I don’t know what sword Illyana is talking about here, but certainly, her and Maddie’s fates were tied together in the original Inferno event, even though they didn’t interact there or at any time after, which has always been interesting. Bringing them together now feels like playing with sparkplugs. Expect fireworks going forward!
After Maddie’s second death in Hellions #4, she resurrected upon the Council’s change of heart on clones in issue #18 of the series—and this is her first appearance since then. And while her Goblin Queen costume is integral to her iconic status, it’s a little odd that in the Hellions issue she seemed to prefer her aviator suit, at least for the time being, only seeing herself as the wicked Goblin Queen in a mirror reflection but clearly with the potential of planning some kind of payback for ever being “at the whim of another Summers.” But hey, who knows, maybe she really was just disoriented in rebirth, having “lost the forest for the trees there”; then again, why wouldn’t she not only jump at getting everything she ever wanted but doing so in a manner most infernal?
[Hellions #18 art by Stephen Segovia and Rain Beredo]
Given all that’s come before, the closing epigraph from Shakespeare speaks for itself!
Lastly, though, it would be great to have more training scenes à la the classic Danger Room days where characters get to talk out emotions while being drawn in fantastic poses and dynamic group shots while dodging danger. Just a thought!
The Martin Simmonds cover is definitely my favorite piece of art this issue. He’s done a number of covers for Marvel over the past several years, and this is his fifth for New Mutants, starting with issue #20, but clearly of much greater prominence has been his work with James Tynion IV on The Department of Truth. This issue’s interior artist, Danilo Beyruth, hasn’t drawn a lot for Marvel since his 2015 debut there, and I definitely prefer his recent symbiote work, and he’s mostly worked with (body) horror material. Here, though, his style comes off as twee; too often the big-eyed cartoonishness and unusual character renderings threw me out the story’s deeper poignancies.
II. “My X-Men must be my secret”
Secret X-Men should not just be a one-shot. These “losers” from 2021’s X-Men election should totally get their own ongoing series! Or maybe it would instead work best as a quarterly thing, so one issue each bookending the yearly Hellfire Gala (in the summer) and the winter event. And obviously, the roster would get a shakeup with every election. (This is assuming the X-Men keep holding the yearly election, which is clearly the way to go—for generations to come! 😉)
That said, while there are many wonderful character moments in this primarily character-focused issue, and we get what is definitively the best, most gorgeous artwork yet from Francesco Mobili, this is really a story focused on Beto and Sam and their adopted home venue in the Shi’ar Imperium. Sunspot made his move to Chandilar back in Hickman’s 2019 New Mutants arc, which this story is really a continuation of.
But really, it’s a prelude to a mystery whose antagonist (Oracle) Hickman already established, and it probably won’t be picked up until later this year—which could make for a timely Secret X-Men follow-up come the Gala.
That said, this impromptu (drunken-night) roster is quirky fun, but it never really gels. Except for Sunspot, Cannonball, and Boom-Boom, these characters have never really gone together, though Marrow did famously have a big crush on Sam in the ’90s; unfortunately, she’s kind of wasted in space—even though seeing her try out her new space-proof bone armor was gnarly and unexpected. While there’s so much potential when we start throwing together unusual fantasy mutant rosters, this one’s rather forced. Especially Tempo comes off as looking great, but we’re just told how she’s contributed; we don’t see it.
Simply put, this is not an ideal space-opera team though all the back-chatter is enjoyable enough.
As to immediate context, remember that Xandra isn’t just the youngest character here, she’s also the newest by far, having been born from a stasis egg in 2018’s Mr. and Mrs. X #1 and then becoming the plot engine for the next several issues of that excellent series. She’s since popped up in Hickman’s New Mutants #2 and 7 (where she was still addressed simply as “Princess”) and X-Men #17 and Ewing’s S.W.O.R.D. #9-11. Bottom line: The first or second most powerful space empire is under the control of a young woman still finding her footing.
In New Mutants #7, Imperial Guard seer Oracle was most definitely the antagonist, a traitor to Xandra, favoring the previous Shi’ar ruler, Gladiator—who definitely never wanted the job that was foisted on him (an outcome of Vulcan and Deathbird’s machinations; see 2009’s War of Kings).
As punishment Xandra ordered Oracle to become her co-advisor alongside Deathbird, her hated enemy—and from the aforementioned War of Kings, not without reason! Empress Xandra’s logic is classic realpolitik: Keep your enemies closest. And who knows, maybe the Empress is keeping one step ahead. Did she really fully wipe her Secret X-Men’s memories?
Xandra must know she can’t trust Oracle (and fellow seer Delphos) who for now has won this match, removing an injured Deathbird from the board. (Courtesy of the mysterious and mercenary Sidri—but hey, don’t they have something of a deal with Krakoa?)